Hydropower is an amazing thing. Any machine, essentially, can be powered by running water - and often in a much simpler way than one would imagine. As the bus descended into the seam of the valley, where a clear river flowed in the dust, we began passing irrigation channels and pipes. Makeshift, rough things - PVC and rusted metal - they were being supplied with water from waterwheels turning creakily in the riverbed. No pumps, no gurgle of hoses, just old wheels lifting water up and letting gravity do the rest. It was so beautifully, elegantly simple. I almost asked the bus driver to stop so that I could take a picture.
In another corner of the country, we visited these much older - and just as intriguing - watermills.
Though there are plenty of hydropower plants in Bosnia, most of the waterwheels one is likely to see are of the schlocky variety. Spinning purposelessly beside restaurants or tourist centers, the wheels seem curious at first, but they're the continuation of a long tradition. Rivers and streams are an integral part of Bosnia - the name is actually derived from the ancient word bosana, which means water. This is a third world country and one of the poorest in Europe, but the tap water in every faucet is not only drinkable - it's delicious and stony cold. It comes from Bosnia's greatest resource, a collection of pristine aquifers that haven't yet been tapped for mass irrigation or drained and dirtied by urbanization. There are springs and crystalline rivers everywhere, their flows almost impervious to drought. It's no surprise that there's also a long history of using all that water to spin wheels, grind grain, pound wool and saw wood - for hundreds of years, mills have been a part of the Bosnian landscape.
Nearby, old mills stand wheel-less, with water spilling unchecked through wooden flumes. There were more picnickers and hikers around than millers when we passed through, and a few cows grazing in unfenced meadows. Some old stone wheels lying in the weeds were the best evidence of the town's past.
None of them are operational, but the famous cluster of mills near Jajce is still one of the most interesting and unique sites in Bosnia. A line of cabin-like buildings in the spillway between two lakes, the mills have been maintained (if not used) since Ottoman times - some estimate that they date to the 16th century.
These small structures were an important part of the medieval Bosnian economy - Ottoman farmers brought their grain to places like this for grinding, leaving ten percent as payment. Centralized mills were common in some places, but at Jajce the small, steady rivulets were perfect for individual families to construct their own. Even today there are close to a dozen, none larger than a shack, kept up as a cultural tribute to the past. In truth, the Jajce watermills were used as recently as the twentieth century, and there are still people in the city that remember grinding their flour there.
It's a beautiful spot, especially on a weekend evening, when Bosnian families canoe on the lakes and barbecue in the parkland around.
The most ingenious and interesting use of hydropower we've come across in Bosnia and Herzegovina was this lamb-roasting spit at Vozač restaurant, in the Vrbas River valley. A bored waiter let us into the roasting cabin, which was - needless to say - quite hot. The home-made wheel was fed by a hose running from the nearby spring; a clever gear mechanism kept the meat's rotation slow and methodical.
We would have stayed for lunch, but it appeared that the creature was a few hours away from being done. Driving away, we realized that it was the first working watermill that we'd seen since the irrigation wheels in Herzegovina - and it wasn't even connected to a river. How wonderful, that a place would cobble something together like this, even with electricity at the ready and a local crowd that didn't care how the spit was turned.